Chunk Didn’t Displace 856

A few days ago, bearcam viewers alerted me to an interesting interaction at Brooks Falls where 32 Chunk appeared to displace 856.

I’ve taken some time to review bearcam footage of the subordinate bear in the video above, and I don’t think he is 856. The bear looks like an adult male, based on his size and the presence of scars around his face. I don’t recognize him, but I am willing to say it is not 856. Here’s why…

856 is a large adult male with blond ears and a long neck. This year he returned with a noticeable limp and sports a shed patch on his rump.

856 will fish at several different places in the falls—the jacuzzi, in the far pool, and near the rocks in between. When he sits at the rocks, he does so in a fairly distinctive manner.

When 856 fishes the jacuzzi, he’ll often leave that spot to eat near the island, almost sitting and facing away from the cam.

In contrast to these behaviors, the bear displaced by 32 Chunk doesn’t appear to be limping (and I’ll admit that bears can heal quickly, so the limp may not be very pronounced now). Both 856 and the unidentified bear may have similar wounds or scars on their face, the ears of the bear displaced by 32 Chunk are darker. The contrast between the unidentified male bear’s front quarters and hind quarters is also more apparent than 856. His muzzle appears blockier than 856, and 856 is very unlikely to play with 89 Backpack.

bear standing in water near waterfall

This is a screen shot of the unidentified adult male who displaced by 32 Chunk.

bear standing on grass near water

856 walking on the island near Brooks Falls in July 2015.

So was this a changing of the guard at Brooks Falls? Probably not. In my opinion, 32 Chunk displaced a full grown adult male, but the subordinate bear was not 856. However, in the absence of other large males like 856 and 747, 32 Chunk may be the most dominant bear on the river. Chunk clearly asserted his dominance over the unidentified male.

Almost every year, a new and fully mature adult bear shows up at Brooks River. Bears are creatures of habit, but they also remain flexible, changing their behaviors when necessary. The unidentified male may have never visited Brooks Falls before and never encountered 32 Chunk. His life up until now is a mystery, but these events are one reason why the story of Brooks River’s bears is so fascinating. This is a constantly evolving story. It will never become static.

View more photos of 856 from 2015 and 2016.
(Thanks to bearcam fan stmango for compiling many videos for me to review.)

When Mother Bears Collide (Again)

Last summer, 128 Grazer and 409 Beadnose found themselves face to face in defense of their cubs . Recently on bearcam, they had another dustup. This one was unique and included elements I had never observed before.

When we ask, “Why did that bear behave like that?” we should ask two additional questions.

  • Was the bear motivated by food or potential access to food?
  • Was the bear motivated by sex or reproductive success?

Biology can be distilled simplistically into two categories: food and sex. Adequate nutrition is necessary for survival of the individual, and since bears hibernate throughout much of the year they are particularly motivated by food. Reproduction also drives bears to behave in particular ways. We should also consider how each bear’s disposition influences their behavior.

128 Grazer
As a young adult bear, 128 Grazer became very skilled at fishing the lip of the falls. She’d compete for access to that spot with several other adult males and females. As a single bear (i.e. no cubs), she was fairly tolerant of other bears in close proximity. After 128 became a mother in 2016 though, her behavior became increasingly defensive. She didn’t shy away from confronting larger adult males in order to protect her cubs .

Still caring for three yearlings in 2017, she seems to be just as protective and wary as last year.

409 Beadnose
In contrast to Grazer, 409 Beadnose is an experienced mother who has weaned three litters (her current batch of yearlings is her fourth known litter). Beadnose can be defensive too, but tends to avoid confrontation more often than 128. While Grazer visited the falls with her spring cubs last summer, 409 did not. This is a clear behavioral change for Beadnose, because she visits the falls frequently when she’s not caring for cubs.

two bears standing in shallow water

128 Grazer (left) and 409 Beadnose are familiar with each other and often use the same areas to fish.

Now both of these mothers are raising yearlings, both have returned to Brooks Falls, and both tend to fish the same places (the lip or the far pool). Most importantly, both are competing for the same resources in order to successfully raise their cubs—leading to situations like this.

Can this apparent snafu be explained by a motivation for food or reproductive success? When the video begins, 409 Beadnose is ascending the hill. 128 Grazer is the blonder bear standing under the spruce tree. Grazer refuses to yield to Beadnose’s approach. The bears jaw and growl at each other, while 128’s yearlings remain in the spruce tree above their mom.

screen shot of bears beneath spruce tree

Beadnose seems compelled to get up the hill and skirts Grazer. There are other routes available, but she sticks with this one.

screen shot of brown bear on hill near spruce tree

Grazer’s cubs eventually come down from the tree while Beadnose lingers in the forest nearby. Something keeps Beadnose from moving farther away, but at this point we can’t see her.

bears standing on his near river

With 409 still on the hill, Grazer and cubs move down to the river. Shortly afterward her yearlings react to something in the same tree they had just climbed down from. Grazer begins to jaw pop, a loud and distinctive warning noise. We can see movement in the spruce tree above.

four bears standing in river near a steep embankment

It’s one of Beadnose’s cubs.

four bears standing in river. Yellow circle surrounds bear in tree. Text reads, "409 yearling"

Grazer and her yearlings scramble up the hill just 409’s yearling tries to climb down. Now we understand why Beadnose didn’t give Grazer more space previously and why Beadnose remained in the forest near spruce tree—one of her cubs was in the same tree as Grazer’s cubs! This is something I never witnessed before, cubs from two litters in the same tree at the same time.

409 is mostly out of sight as 128 and cubs run up the hill. 409’s yearling though, is unable to get out of the tree.

Two bears climbing a hill. Yellow circle highlights a bear in a spruce tree. Text reads, "409 Yearling"

A short stand-off ensues. 409’s yearling remains in the tree, 409 stands not far up the hill, and 128 Grazer and yearlings remain close by.

Screen shot of bears on hill in vegetation. Yellow circles highlight location of bears. Text reads, from top to bottom, "409 yearling" "409 Beadnose" "128 Grazer"

When 409’s cub tries to climb down again, Grazer reacts and charges to the base of the tree.

screen shot of bear standing on hill near river

Grazer then climbs the tree, forcing Beadnose’s yearling back up. About ninety seconds later, 128 has moved farther away, which allows 409’s cub to climb out of the tree and rejoin its mother.

This interaction between Grazer and Beadnose was unique because cubs from two different litters were in the same tree at the same time, greatly complicating a situation where the families could’ve avoided each other. The interaction was ordinary however, because both Beadnose’s and Grazer’s behavior seemed to be motivated by an urge to protect their cubs. Grazer’s defensiveness is easily triggered and she must’ve viewed the 409 yearling as a threat, which in my opinion led her to chase it back up the tree. Beadnose may have realized Grazer was willing to physically fight in this situation. This could’ve deterred Beadnose from standing next to the tree under her cub. At the beginning of the video, Beadnose also couldn’t get her cub out of the tree with Grazer’s cubs still in it. Stuck in a Catch-22, Beadnose seemed to choose a more cautious tactic: move slightly away and wait.

Motivation for food or reproductive success explains quite a lot in biology, but not all bear behavior can be explained so simplistically (why would a bear play with her foot? ). The prolonged interaction between these families however, does fit one of the biological motivators. This interaction probably wasn’t hierarchical; that is, it wasn’t about asserting dominance for access to food and mates. It was about protecting offspring. In other words, it was about reproduction.

Go Further So Bears Can Go Farther

Plans are afoot to restore grizzly bears to the North Cascades ecosystem. The draft plan includes four alternatives. Only one (Alternative A) takes no action. The others, through various strategies, all aim to restore a self sustaining population of bears in the ecosystem, an effort I support. Grizzlies should be in North Cascades, but that can’t be the end game. We need to go further to allow wildlife to go father.

The story of the grizzly bear is well documented. Like bison, grizzlies suffered immensely from westward American expansion. Once found from California to Missouri and Alaska to Mexico, this iconic species is now restricted to Alaska, western Canada, and a few isolated pockets in the Lower 48.

The grizzly bear was listed as a threatened species in the Lower 48 under the Endangered Species Act in 1975. At the time, grizzlies were known or thought to exist in only four states. Since then, its range has not expanded substantially, but the most famous grizzly population in Yellowstone National Park has grown to over 700 individuals, at or near the Yellowstone ecosystem’s carrying capacity, and the Northern Continental Divide population, centered around Glacier National Park in Montana, is also doing well with over 1000 animals.

Elsewhere in the Lower 48, grizzly bears remain rare or non-existent. The Selkirk ecosystem, in northwest Washington and adjacent British Columbia, harbors only 80 grizzly bears. The Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem in northwest Montana and northern Idaho has about 50. No grizzly bears are known from the Bitterroot ecosystem in central Idaho, nor in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado where they were rumored to exist. They are extinct in Mexico.

Grizzly bears aren’t spreading far and wide, despite a high level of protection since the 1970s. They are slow to reproduce, need isolation from people, and roam over large areas of undeveloped habitat. They maintain a foothold only where they weren’t extirpated and where humans tolerate them.

In 1982, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identified the North Cascades ecosystem as a recovery zone for grizzlies in the Lower 48. The ecosystem includes over six million acres stretching from extreme southwest British Columbia to Cle Elum and the Interstate 90 corridor in Washington. The core of the ecosystem is a 2.6 million acre federal wilderness complex. The wilderness areas encompass most of North Cascades National Park, Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, and a significant portion of the Okanogan-Wenatchee and Mount Baker-Snoqualmie national forests.

Map of North Cascades area showing public land and land management agencies. Black line outlines boundary of the ecosystem.

The North Cascades Ecosystem in Washington. (From the Draft Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan, pg. 2).

A handful of grizzly bears persist in the British Columbia portion of the ecosystem, but none are known in Washington. The last verified sighting of a grizzly bear in this area of Washington was in 1996. The last time a female with cubs was seen was 1991. (A possible sighting in 2010 was likely a black bear.) According to the restoration plan, it is unlikely that the North Cascades area contains a viable grizzly bear population and grizzlies are at risk of local extinction in this ecosystem if no measures are taken to introduce more bears.

Mountain valley scene. Steep walled mountains with red-berried shrub in foreground.

Many places in the North Cascades ecosystem, like the upper Stehekin River valley, provide excellent habitat for grizzly bears.

I believe it is worthwhile to make an effort to prevent the extirpation of grizzlies in the North Cascades ecosystem, even though these bears aren’t keystones like salmon or sea otters. The bears may not create substantial changes in the area, but they will have many effects. Grizzly bears are an umbrella species. If we protect habitat for and maintain healthy populations of grizzly bears, then that large core of habitat is protected for the vast majority of other species in the area.

For grizzly bears and other large carnivores, like wolves, to regain their full potential as umbrella species, we need to do more than tolerate their existence in a few isolated areas. This is where the Draft Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan falls short. The plan aims to restore a population, not create connectivity with others. For grizzly bears to remain truly viable and self sustaining, their populations need connectivity.

The Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative is probably the most famous example of this concept. It’s an effort to protect a corridor of habitat from Yellowstone National Park north through the Rocky Mountains into the Yukon Territory. It would not only provide habitat for bears, but wolves, wolverines, elk, deer, moose, and many, many other animals and plants. It would provide animals with habitat corridors so they could migrate and shift their range as conditions dictate.

Perhaps we need to provide animals and plants on the west coast of North America with a similar corridor, one stretching from Alaska and British Columbia to Baja California. The current hodgepodge of national forests and parks along the Cascade Mountains and Sierra Nevada could provide the core. To achieve continuity between ecosystems, it would only be a (not so) simple matter of connecting those pieces together in ways to adhere habitats. (I also dream about similar conservation corridors across North America—the Appalachians, a bison commons on the high plains, and Florida among others.)

I’m not sure I will include a vision for the British Columbia to Baja corridor in any comments I might submit on the draft grizzly bear restoration plan. I already know the response: “This is outside the scope of the restoration plan.” The response is completely legit. The lead agencies for the restoration plan, the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, have no authority to create such an entity. It’ll need legislation, funding, time, and the strong support of citizens and non-government organizations to be successful.

When we have an opportunity to rewild a landscape, we should. When we have an opportunity to give a little back to wildlife, we should. But, we can do better than simply restoring grizzlies to the North Cascades. Earth’s systems don’t work in isolation. We know enough now to build resiliency into our efforts to protect wild lands and wildlife. We can provide grizzly bears with the habitat to roam into Oregon, California, and other parts of the West again. We can give the ecosystems more room to be resilient. Our goal shouldn’t be to simply have bears in a few isolated areas, but provide continuous habitat so bears can survive future changes without us. That’s how we know we’ve gone far enough.

You can submit comments on the Draft Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan through April 28, 2017.